GAZA STRIP: SEARCH FOR EXIT STRATEGY
By Silke Mertins
Between ceasefire, muddling on, re-occupation and offensive troops. On Monday France's president Sarkozy begins a Middle East mediation tour. Is a diplomatic solution in his briefcase?
[This article published 1/2/2009 in: Die Presse is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://diepresse.com/home/politik/nahost/441313/print.do.]
Jerusalem. On Friday Israel continued its military offensive undiminished. The air force attacked 20 targets in the Gaza strip. Around 400 foreigners in Gaza were given exit permits from Gaza. Is this a sign for an imminent ground offensive? Militant Palestinians fire rockets on Israel. Two of them hit apartment buildings in the town of Ashkelon.
In the Friday prayers, Hamas representatives vowed they "would not hoist the white flag." However while Palestinians and Israelis continued their attacks, the search began for a way out. Arab and European mediators including France, Turkey and Egypt explore options for ending the escalation that has caused 400 deaths. On Monday France's president Sarkozy begins his Middle East mediation tour. Is a diplomatic solution in his briefcase?
1. THE RETURN TO A CEASEFIRE
An immediate ceasefire would be the fastest end to the war. However Israel rejects a "humanitarian ceasefire," arguing there is no humanitarian crisis. Up to 100 trucks with emergency relief and medicines are allowed daily in the Gaza strip. In the meantime the government in Jerusalem is ready for a complete long-term ceasefire. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also supports a truce - "as quickly as possible" but means a lasting ceasefire "that may not lead to the past state where Israel is attacked with rockets from the Gaza strip." Thus the Israeli position is adopted.
Hamas strives for a ceasefire under new conditions: the end of the blockade, the opening of all border-crossing points, should be part of the deal. That would be a political victory for Hamas. Israel wants to avoid this. Instead Israel hopes to weaken Hamas so it moves away from its maximum demands.
The clock ticks and both sides begin with their search for an exit strategy. A "return to the shaky status quo ante" would be most realistic. "Both sides will announce their victory and both sides will have lost in reality," as the Middle East expert Daniel Levy bitterly concluded.
2. INTERNATIONAL TROOPS FORM A BUFFER
As in Lebanon after the war, an international protective troop could be deployed in the Gaza strip as a buffer between Israelis and Palestinians. In this way, a neutral authority could supervise the activities of both sides and introduce a calming of the situation.
Israel is ambivalent regarding this possibility. On one hand, this could help protect the population around Gaza. On the other hand, Israel fears that Hamas could outwit the foreign troops and continue smuggling weapons. In addition, Israel could not carry out limited military operations as before. Hamas is also hardly enthusiastic about this solution. The Hamas government would be discouraged and greatly limited in its military activities.
3. EVERYTHING REMAINS DANGEROUSLY UNDECIDED
If no settlement is reached between the conflict parties, the danger exists that everything will continue as before. The battles will die down for some time and escalate again after a short breather. The Islamic Palestinian organization Hamas could live with this solution. Resistance is part of their basic understanding. However this would be difficult or impossible for the Israeli government. It has promised the population in southern Israel an essential change of the threatening situation in Gaza. If this does not succeed, a massive government crisis will occur and a certain changeover of power with the election in February.
Israel's government profits from the present military confrontation. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni, the leader of the government party, Kadima, has realized this. She is now head to head with opposition leader Benjamin Netanjahu.
If the nebulous state continues in Gaza, this also means the inner Palestinian power struggle remains undecided. Hamas is militarily weakening after the bombardment. But it may emerge politically strengthened from confrontation with Israel. It would only be a question of time until Hamas wages its struggle in the West Bank where the moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas resides.
ISRAEL RE-OCCUPIES THE GAZA STRIP
Beyond the compromises, Israel could re-occupy the Gaza strip. The present government excludes this. Different from 2005 when the Gaza strip was cleared away, Hamas has now grown to a 15,000 man strong army. Again and again opposition leader Benjamin Netanjahu has denounced the mistake of leaving the Gaza strip. However event he rightwing camp is afraid of the risk of a reoccupation because of likely casualties.